Iowa Senator Zach Wahls

“I’m a registered Democrat, but am not opposed to voting for intellectually honest Republicans. My biggest frustration with politicians is not about specific policies, usually, but about whether or not the politicians are being honest about what those policies will do, why they are presenting those policies, etc. Way too much of our policy making is about emotionally-charged and intellectually dishonest claims instead of real world problem solving. Any politician with the courage to put forward solutions–that actually solve problems, even if they’re unpopular–is worth consideration in my book.”
~Zach Wahls (from an interview by Michael Hulshof-Schmidt)

My fellow Iowa Citian Zach Wahls was elected to the Iowa Senate. I don’t know him personally, but I know of his family. The church he grew up in and remains a member of, the local Unitarian Universalist, I attended for a period of time back in the early Aughts. He was was a young kid at the time, having been born in 1991. I’m sure I saw him and his family around the place and around the community, as it is a fairly small town. He still is young for a politician, at 27 years old.

This particular upbringing surely shaped his worldview. He was raised by two mothers, that likely being a major reason his family went to the UU church, as it is well known as a bastion of liberalism. Unitarian Universalism, along with closely related deism, has its roots in Enlightenment thought and was originally popularized in the United States by a number of revolutionaries and founders. In 1822, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian.” He was a bit off in his prediction. But as Zach Wahls election demonstrates, this religious tradition remains a force within American society.

Senator Wahls first became politically involved by writing for his high school newspaper and continued his journalistic interests later on through a local newspaper. On a large stage, he first came to political and public attention in 2011 through a speech he gave on the Iowa House Judiciary Committee. It was in defense of same sex marriage, and interestingly was an expression of a uniquely Iowan attitude that emphasizes community and citizenship, hard work and family values but not in the sense of the fundamentalist culture wars. That speech went viral and was widely reported in the mainstream media. He was interviewed on some popular shows. That opened doors for him. He gave another speech at the 2012 Democrat National Convention and he was a delegate for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

So, his being in the limelight began not that many years ago. His mother, Dr. Terry Wahls, initially was more well known than him. She wrote some books over the past decade about how she reversed the symptoms of multiple sclerosis in herself, in her patients and in the subjects of clinical studies; with her initial book having been published in 2010, a short while before her son’s first major speech. Although a mainstream medical doctor, she is popular in the field of alternative diet and health. She is among a growing number of doctors, researchers, and experts who have challenged the problems and failures of our present healthcare system. It is unsurprising that her son while campaigning for the Iowa Senate seat promised, among other things, to reform healthcare.

It remains to be seen what kind of politician he will be. As with Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez, he is fresh blood from a generation just now entering the political arena. But he grew up ensconced in a liberal class bubble and appears to fall prey to some of its biases. It doesn’t go without notice that he was such a major supporter of Hillary Clinton, rather than Bernie Sanders, not that I know he ever attacked or spoke badly of Sanders. Still, he comes across as a fairly mainstream Democrat with some mild progressive leanings. He might be ahead of the game, though.

Clinton and Obama didn’t support same sex marriage until recent years, long after they had built their political careers, and long after the majority of Americans were already in favor of same sex marriage. Those old Democrats are used to playing it safe by making sure to remain to the right of public opinion and inching left only when public demand forces them to. Zach Wahls, on the other hand, grew up with same sex marriage as the norm of his entire reality. He began defending it in articles published in his high school newspaper. The old school Blue Dog Democrats have roots in Southern conservatism, established by the Southern Evangelical Jimmy Carter and more fully entrenched by Bill Clinton who also was a born-and-bred Southerner. Senator Wahls, however, formed his worldview in the heart of liberal progressivism, situated in a Northern town alien to Southern culture and politics. He takes the political left for granted as the starting point and so, even as part of mainstream politics, he is pushing the Overton window further back to the left again.

Young and idealistic, Senator Wahls enters the political fray right at the moment when the American public is being radicalized and reform is in the air. This might elicit the better angels of his nature. It might be easier for reform to take hold now when the majority of Americans are behind it. More importantly, he is bringing with him genuine knowledge of the issues, knowledge built on personal experience and so with personal stakes. The civil rights angle is important, whether in terms of same sex marriage or other things. But to my mind, more important is healthcare reform, as it touches on the nerve of populism. His mother, if she hadn’t turned to alternative health to treat her multiple sclerosis, would now at best be wheelchair-bound and at worst already dead. She did this after conventional medicine was unable to help her. So, Senator Wahls understands the failure of the system in an intimate way and he understands the kinds of concrete changes that need to happen.

As an Iowan, I’ll be watching him closely. The more infamous Iowa politician, Steve King, appears to be on the decline in his position within the Washington establishment. The older generation is losing its grip on power and the younger generation is clamoring to replace them. Senator Wahls, in particular, seems like a new breed of Democrat. I wish him well.

Bernie Sanders and Civil Rights

A blogger I follow has said he is voting green again. I have no problem with that whatsoever. But the specific reasons he gave were unconvincing, not to mention unfair. He writes that,

“Sanders to his credit has condemned Emanuel. I’m just not sure what to make of a northeastern senator that thinks he deserves ally cookies for being involved in the Civil Rights Movement a half century ago. The Sanders campaign has not actively reached out to non-white voters, instead expecting them to fall in line behind him because of his past. That’s not good enough. I’m also not sure what to make of a senator that was too politically cowardly to endorse marriage equality in Vermont in 2006.”

I feel a need to respond. What he wrote is dismissive and uninformed. Sanders has never asked for ally cookies. That is tearing down a straw man.

I prefer third party candidates myself. And I voted for Nader in the past. There are endless reasons to despise the two party system. I very well might vote Green this coming election as well.

Yet for the moment I’m supporting Sanders’ campaign because it forces many issues into public debate that would otherwise be ignored. If not for Sanders long and extensive personal history and voting record on civil rights issues, the mainstream media (and Hillary Clinton) wouldn’t even be talking about it.

I may not vote for Sanders in the end. But, either way, I want him treated fairly. To dismiss him is to play right into the hands of those who also dismiss third party candidates.

Plus, don’t ignore economic issues, as if they are separate from civil rights issues. MLK understood how inseparable they were. MLK wasn’t selling out or giving up on civil rights when he decided to focus on poverty that harmed all Americans, including many whites.

Before deciding, look at all the info and analysis. Sanders civil rights involvement has been continuous over the decades. It wasn’t a one time involvement a half century ago. I don’t deny that Sanders could do more, but that goes for all of us. Besides, he has done more for civil rights than most people complaining about him.

In US history, there has never been a major presidential candidate that was stronger than Sanders on civil rights. This is a historical moment, simply for his ability to get such massive support. This will permanently change the debate. Civil rights is Sanders strong point.

If you genuinely want to criticize Sanders for plausible reasons, you’d be better off focusing on his foreign policy record. The reason many of his critics don’t focus on foreign policy is because on that issue Hillary Clinton looks truly horrific.

Sanders is a moderate in this area. He isn’t a pacifist by a long shot. And he isn’t going to speak in the language of anti-authoritarianism, anti-statism, and anti-imperialism. But he did speak out against the Vietnam War. And he voted against wars of aggression such as the Iraq War. Considering wars of aggression are both unconstitutional and illegal, that isn’t a minor issue. Sanders, unlike Clinton, doesn’t take lightly the act of the US military killing people. He is much more supportive of diplomacy and multilateralism. This is an extension of his civil libertarian approach to politics.

Anyway, it is on foreign policies that third party candidates really shine, far beyond even an independent like Sanders. To me, that is an extremely important issue. It very well might lead me to vote Green. My point is that, if just going by civil rights, I’d find arguments against Sanders less compelling. All you have to do is look at his record. I’m not sure why so many people don’t bother to look closely at any of this. It’s not hard to find.

I get the sense that some people are looking for a reason to dismiss Sanders. It’s not limited to people who are attacking him because of another candidate they prefer. It seems that it is hard for quite a few to imagine that something good can come from an old white guy who is a professional politician, especially when he is running in one of the major parties. They can’t get past this in order to consider his record on its own terms.

* * *

Where does Bernie Sanders stand on civil rights?

Bernie Sanders on Civil Rights

12 Examples Of Bernie Sanders Powerful 50+ Year Record On Civil Rights And Racial Justice

20 ways Bernie Sanders has stood up for civil and minority rights

Here’s What Bernie Sanders Actually Did in the Civil Rights Movement

The radical left has Bernie Sanders all wrong

Sanders wins nod from noted communist leader

Bernie Sanders Was Slapped for Supporting Jesse Jackson in ’88

Jesse Jackson Comes to Sanders’ Defense on Civil Rights: ‘The Movement Was So Broad Based’

MLK associate and Civil Rights Icon Rev. Harold Middlebrook endorses Bernie Sanders

BERNIE SANDERS ON LGBTQ RIGHTS

Watch Bernie Sanders Shut Down a Homophobic House Member in This Video From 1995

Bernie Sanders Was for Full Gay Equality 40 Years Ago

32 Years Before Marriage Equality, Bernie Sanders Fought For Gay Rights

NBC’s Chuck Todd: Bernie Sanders was ‘there’ on same-sex marriage 20 years ago

Rachel Maddow: ‘There Is a Difference’ Between Sanders, Clinton on LGBT Rights

Whose Human Nature?

Kenan Malik made a defense of unrestricted free speech. I agreed with his basic argument. But that wasn’t what got me thinking.

In the comments section, I noticed that a couple of people didn’t understand what Malik was trying to communicate. They were conflating the issue of free speech with all the issues related to free speech, as if the only way to enforce control over all of society is by strictly controlling what people are allowed to say, and I assume harshly punishing anyone who disobeys by speaking freely. One of these conflated issues was human nature (see this comment and my responses).

The one commenter I had in mind seemed to be basing his views on some basic beliefs. There is a belief that there is a singular human nature that can be known and upon which laws should be based. Also there is the belief that human nature is unchanging, uncontrollable, and unimproving… all that one can do is constrain its expression.

This kind of thinking always seems bizarre to me. It’s a more typical conservative worldview. It’s the belief that human nature is just what it is and can be nothing else. So, liberals and left-wingers are perceived as being utopian perfection-seekers because they point out that human psychology is diverse, plastic, and full of potential.

I was thinking about this more in my own experience, though, and not just as a liberal. I’ve long realized I’m not normal and I’ve never thought that my own psychology should be considered normative for the human race. If all humans were like me, society would have some serious problems. I don’t presume most people are like me or should be like me.

Here is what I see in others who have strong beliefs about human nature, both descriptively and prescriptively. I often suspect they are projecting, taking what they know in their own experience and assuming others are like them. My self-perceived abnormality has safeguarded me from projecting onto others, at least in my understanding of human nature.

Armed Americans Are the Greatest Threat to Americans

Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans with guns than by all of our enemies across all of history combined.

That is a mind-blowing fact. It puts the issue in perspective. It also makes one wonder what people mean by guns making them feel ‘safe’. It certainly doesn’t make Americans on the other side of that gun safe. Nor does it make for a safer society, as compared to other countries.

This can be taken as a direct criticism of guns or not. I take it as a criticism of our gun-obsessed and violence-obsessed culture. There are other countries with as or higher rates of gun ownership and yet lower rates of gun homicide. Likewise, other countries don’t necessarily have less crime, just less crime that leads to homicide. It’s bad enough being robbed or raped, but being killed afterward is far worse.

In America, life is cheap.

Libertarians: Privilege & Partisanship

Here are two blog posts that connect. They’re about some of the problems and limitations of the present conservative-leaning libertarian world view. I entirely agree.

http://usjamerica.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/libertarians-and-diversity-or-lack-thereof/

At the above link, the blogger is responding to these articles:

http://reason.com/archives/2009/10/20/are-property-rights-enough

http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2009/10/25/liberty-in-context/

And he responds with this commentary:

. . . libertarianism – as a political movement – is overwhelmingly white and male.  We tend to think of the racial composition of a political movement as just having electoral consequences, but it also has a profound effect on the core ideology of said movement.  At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, marginalized voices – racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, etc. – are overrepresented among liberals and as such, the left that has been forced to grapple with the issues and concerns of marginalized communities in such a way as to make liberalism better equipped to deal with these issues.

It seems that insofar that libertarians experience oppression or constraints on their liberty, it is through the actions of the state rather than through culture, which makes sense. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male, and in a culture which highly values whiteness and maleness, they will face relatively fewer overt cultural constraints on their behavior than their more marginalized fellow-travelers.  Or in other words, a fair number of libertarians are operating with a good deal of unexamined privilege, and it’s this, along with the extremely small number of women and minorities who operate within the libertarian framework, which makes grappling with cultural sources of oppression really hard for libertarians.  After all – socially speaking – being a white guy in the United States isn’t exactly hard and that’s doubly true if you are well off.

Here is the comment I left:

You hit the nail on the head. What goes for libertarian these days tend to be rich white males. I pointed this out in a recent post of mine:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/libertarianism-rich-white-males-of-the-republican-party/

They’re concerned about freedom from rather than freedom for because of the reasons you stated. As they grew up with privilege, they’ve never known prejudice, poverty, and oppression. They don’t understand that there are still people in this country fighting for the basic rights and privilege that they accept as being their normal reality.

The thing is libertarianism wasn’t always this way. According to Chomsky, libertarianism began as a socialist workers movement in Europe. The founding father of American libertarianism was Henry David Thoreau who was very liberal and not pro-capitalist. I wrote about Thoreau’s libertarianism in another recent post:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/henry-david-thoreau-founding-father-of-american-libertarian-thought-by-jeff-riggenbach/

The second blog post I mentioned is this:

http://freesmith.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/neo-libertarians/

. . . new libertarians are really disappointed conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists, who seek an intellectual basis for their values and find it in the rock-solid certainty of an ideology characterized by an ethic of individualistic, leave-me-alone, I-can-do-it-myself sufficiency. These disaffected Republicans know the surface of libertarianism; the details, which are hinted at by Stossel’s review and expressed in greater detail by virtually unknown contemporary writers like Virginia Postrel (”The Future and Its Enemies”) and others tend to make our neo-libertarian very uncomfortable.

You see, it’s one thing if “they” lose their house because they violated the laws of the market; it’s quite another if “I” lose my job because my employer can import a Filipino who will work for a quarter of what I was making. Well, to the real libertarian the second example is just as much the laws of the market as the first, so too bad.

These two posts bring up important issues about right-wing libertarians. Too many libertarians are oblivious to the classical liberal roots of libertarianism and too few understand that libertarianism isn’t inherently conservative. There is nothing about the libertarian world view that requires a person to be for conservative ideology such as pro-capitalism, and yet libertarianism is entirely against most of the central positions of mainstream conservatism (nationalism, drug prohibition, and using the federal government to regulate marriage and abortions).

Libertarianism could be a powerful movement if libertarians didn’t make it into a partisan movement and didn’t make into class war. Libertarianism shouldn’t be just for rich white conservatives. If libertarianism doesn’t fight for the rights of all and doesn’t fight for that which oppresses freedom, then can it even genuinely be considered libertarian?

Liberal and even socialist libertarians exist, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the libertarians from right-wing think tanks and Fox News. Libertarianism began as a socialist workers movement in Europe, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the rich white conservatives who control the libertarian message. I’d love to see a big tent libertarianism. Until that happens, it’s unlikely there will be a third party that can challenge the two party system.

Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

I never thought about Henry David Thoreau in terms of libertarianism, but obviously some of his views pointed in the direction of libertarianism or even some form of anarchism.

I noticed a glaring ommission in the portrayal. Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.

“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”

Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

Shakers: Socialists & Capitalists

I was listening to an interview on the radio last night. It was about a legal battle that happened a couple centuries ago in the US. A man joined the Shakers and took his children with him, but his wife didn’t want to join the Shakers. She sought to get a divorce and get her children back. At the time, it was hard for a woman get a divorce. She did finally succeed and it set an important precedent.

The history of this incident was interesting, but I was more just fascinated by the Shakers themselves. I’m already somewhat familiar with them. My great grandfather was raised in a Shaker orphanage and some years ago I visited a Shaker village. Of course, there were all kinds of religious communities in early American history, but there are several things that make the Shakers stand out in my mind.

They believed in abstinence and in not bringing more children into the world, but they did have orphanages where they took in other people’s children and where the children of new members were raised. They believed living a simple life. They farmed together and lived together, men on one side of the hall and women on the other side. They believed in equality which was impressive for the time. Women were considered equal to men and blacks were considered equal to whites. At the time of the legal incident, the Shakers had as their leader a woman. She was the most powerful woman in the US. Most women had no rights at all, but she was the head of a national organization which was quite powerful and wealthy. The Shakers were more than a century ahead of the rest of the country when it came to civil rights.

Here is the interesting part. They lived a communal life and so were socialists. Christians from the beginning have always been attracted to socialism, from early Christian communities (which valued equality like the Shakers did) to Catholic monasteries. However, in America, we always like to think of socialism as being alien to our culture. But Shakers were as American as any other group. Many like to say that socialism can’t work and it’s true the Shakers have mostly died out by now, but that is mostly because they didn’t have children which creates a minor problem in sustaining the Shaker lifestyle. In their heyday, they were wealthy and this partly came about because new members gave all their money and property to the Shakers. Still, the Shakers didn’t merely live off of the wealth of new members.

They were a very successful community. They were leaders in the field of agriculture. They were technologically innovative and they produced some of the best seeds in the entire US which other farmers would buy from them. Even though they were socialists among themselves, they were capitalists within larger society. They didn’t merely isolate themselves.

I just thought this was interesting. The example of the Shakers goes against the assumptions of conservatives, libertarians and objectivists. Socialism and capitalism are seen as opposed, but China has proven that this is not the case even on the level of global markets. Socialism and capitalism not only weren’t opposed but seemed to operate in balance within the Shaker community. How could socialists living in a commune be among the greatest technological innovators of their time? It goes against everything most Americans believe… and yet such a community did exist.

Also, they didn’t just produce innovative technology and high quality seeds. They also produced very skilled people. As I said, my great grandfather was raised by Shakers. He learned how to care for plants. When he left the Shakers, he got a job as the head groundskeeper on the estate of a very wealthy family. A child raised by the Shakers was better educated and better prepared to be successful than most Americans were in the past. My great grandfather came from a poor family which is why he was given to the Shakers to be raised. Many poor children today in the US would be lucky if Shaker orphanages were still around.

In conclusion, I’d just like to say that Glenn Beck can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

The Ending of Culture Wars

I’ve noticed the news about issue of gays in the military. 

Smoke the Bigots Out of the Closet
By Frank Rich

A funny thing happened after Adm. Mike Mullen called for gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military: A curious silence befell much of the right. If this were a Sherlock Holmes story, it would be the case of the attack dogs that did not bark.

I thought this is showing how the culture wars started by the moral conservatives are slowly coming to an end.  Abstinence only sex education has been a failure and lost its funding.  Most Americans are against banning abortion.  American fundamentalists preaching against gays in Africa has backfired and turned into an ugly mess.  In every direction we look, the religious right is losing battle after battle.  And now even conservatives politicians are feeling cautious about what they say.

My grandmother who is still alive was a little girl when the KKK was having it’s last great resurgence.  It was with the KKK that the culture wars began.  The Birth of a Nation was the propaganda film that popularized culture wars and this is why the religious right has ever since been associated with proponents of “white culture” superiority.  With WWI, patriotic nationalism arose like never before and moral conservatism rode that wave.  Moral conservatism, through the Southern Strategy, became directly aligned with the Republican party.  The GOP has been fighting the good fight ever since and they gained great power by doing so, but times they are a’changing.

The last great hope of the moral conservatives was George W. Bush who was a born again Christian.  But now even Christians are starting to question the merits of politcizing religion.  Recent polls show that most Americans think religion and politics should be kept separate.  Political Christianity isn’t dead yet, but it certainly is ailing.   In general, the alliance is weakening between Christianity and moral conservatism.  The beliefs of Americans show a mix-and-match philosophy that is eating away at the dogma of fundamentalism.  I saw statistics that show even most conservatives think “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed.

The culture wars aren’t over yet and moral conservatives still have some fight left in them, but for certain conservative morality is losing its political currency as a wedge issue.  The American public is becoming more socially liberal.  The younger generation is most definitely socially liberal.  Even political independents, fiscally conservative though they are, have become socially liberal.

I think it would be a good thing if the Republican party was no longer forced to be dependent on the support of the religous right.  I think it’s no accident that as Republicans turn away from the culture wars that they start to remember the importance of fiscal conservatism.  The Tea Party seems to be the attempt of true conservatives (such as Ron Paul supporters) to remind Republican politicians that they want their party back.  It doesn’t mean Republicans will forget about religion, but it does mean that religion will become increasingly a personal issue rather than a political strategy.